Maintaining a Healthy Theological Diet in the Pastorate

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Pastoring a church is a very demanding calling. The congregation has various needs that they expect the pastor to address, the officers and staff need guidance, there are seemingly endless email requests from outside ministries wanting support, there are crises that arise without warning, and through it all the pastor has a family of his own and a sermon he needs to write and preach on Sunday.

When I speak with fellow-pastors I hear their desire to delve into theology for enjoyment and self-edification, but there is no time. What I would like to offer fellow-pastors are some ideas on how to maintain theological richness and rigor in the pastorate. These are some things that I employ for myself and have found them useful.

1. Dust off and re-read your seminary textbooks.

When I enrolled at Reformed Theological Seminary as a masters student there were certain books that were foundational to my studies. For example, Christ of the Covenants by O. Palmer Robertson, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God by John Frame, He Gave Us Stories by Richard Pratt, and The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses by Vern Poythress were all quite instrumental in serving as the ground for my biblical and theological training.

Reading these works as a young seminarian with the added pressure of assignments and examinations was one thing, but reading them now as a seasoned pastor is quite another. There is now far more freedom to read at my own pace and to further explore the content. I recently completed a re-read of Christianity and Liberalism by John Gresham Machen and found that I can better understand the issues contained in the book because of my experience in working with the flock.

2. Serve on Presbytery’s Examining Committee.

The Presbyterian Church in America requires its teaching elders to serve on Presbytery committees. Though there are many committees to choose from, and some that require very little advanced preparation, I chose to serve on the examining committee. Serving on the examining committee requires its members to be well-read and current on various theological discussions. Committee members read theological and exegetical papers, listen to sermons, and examine candidates (both written and oral) in many content areas. This committee requires that its members continually study.

3. Study the Reformed Creeds and Confessions.

I appreciate the Reformed Creeds and Confessions far more now than I did in seminary. These documents provide excellent summaries and cross-references. Though my denomination aligns itself with the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms, I spend a lot of time reading The Heidelberg, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort. There is rarely a day that goes by where I don’t spend some time reading one of the Reformed creeds.

4. Subscribe to quality podcasts, blogs, and online theological classes.

Technology has its advantages and disadvantages, but I am thankful to live in a day where so much quality teaching is available online. I listen to lectures, sermons, and subscribe to a number of blogs and online classes. I recently searched for a lecture by John Frame and found one he delivered at Westminster many years ago. I also recently found a series of sermons by Sinclair Ferguson that were fantastic and provided me with much fodder for my own sermons.

5. Make study a priority.

Pastors often hear that prayer should be a priority, and it should, but a similar plea should also be made of study. Some pastors spend very little time in sermon preparation and study, and it shows in their preaching. Expounding on Scripture requires biblical and theological literacy and that can be achieved only through dedicated study. My personal charge to pastors who neglect study has always been this: have the integrity to leave the pulpit ministry for one who will give the preaching of the gospel its proper priority.

6. Request study time away.

Every church should offer its pastor paid study time away. I know some churches are more able to do this than others, but for the sake of the pastor, and more importantly the congregation, it is critical that there be a time of study. I know some pastors in my denomination see General Assembly as a time to get away for a week, attend to business, and take time for edification seminars. Personally, I do not view this as the ideal study getaway but for some pastors this is all they have.

7. Go back to seminary for refreshers.

Most seminaries offer their graduates decreased auditing fees for continuing education. Every pastor should return to seminary to audit a class on a regular basis, but I think few actually do this. Some pastors may not live near a seminary (especially the one they graduated from), but this brings me back to my fourth point: see if the seminary offers classes online (or through iTunes).

8. Maintain communication and camaraderie with seminary professors.

I was blessed to have studied in a seminary whose professors were more than mere instructors to me; they were fathers, brothers, and friends. These men were humble scholars and every time I contacted them, even years after I graduated, they always took the time to respond. Even new faculty who arrived after my studies were completed became my friends. I call on these professors for continued guidance in my studies and ministry and have yet to be turned down.

I was recently preparing for a study on Habakkuk and contacted a couple of professors for their guidance on study material. Their recommendations did so much to enhance my personal study as well as enhance the class as a whole. They have so much wisdom and insight and I am grateful that they long to serve the church with the gifts God has given them.

9. Acquire quality works.

I am very selective in what books I purchase. If I desire to read an author with whom I am unfamiliar, I will sometimes search online to see if there is a shorter piece, like an essay, to help me determine if I want to buy their books. I did this recently with Jürgen Moltmann. I have read works that have cited Moltmann, but have never read him directly. After reading some of his essays I didn’t want to pursue him much further. Though I found his works interesting, it was not favorable enough to warrant adding him to my library. Here is some wisdom from John Frame in The Doctrine of the Word of God that I keep in mind when purchasing books,

God’s Word is the ultimate criterion of truth and right. It is the judge of what reasoning is valid and sound. The ultimate test of a scholar is whether his work agrees with Scripture. And Scripture determines what evidences are to be believed.

10. Spend time daily reading and devoting from God’s Word.

I know this sounds obvious and I am almost embarrassed to include this on my list, but I trust that many pastors are so overwhelmingly busy with administrative duties that they spend very little time in God’s Word. We have to remember that pastors are ordained and called to a specific ministry in the earthly church: to be ministers of Word and Sacrament. One does not need to be ordained to visit the sick, or give grace to the poor, or put out fires that may erupt among church members. After all, Scripture instructs that the saints should be equipped for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12). But one does need to be ordained to consistently preach the Word and faithfully administer the Sacraments in the context of corporate worship. Those two things require study and the attention of an ordained minister.

Kierkegaard’s Practice in Christianity: The Offense

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Kierkegaard begins this chapter with an obvious tension: shall the person and work of Christ be separated from his teaching? Is it possible to revere Christ’s teaching but not the God-man?

But in our day everything is made abstract and everything personal is abolished: we take Christ’s teaching – and abolish Christ. This is to abolish Christianity, for Christ is a person and is a teacher who is more important than the teaching. Just as Christ’s life, the fact that he has lived, is vastly more important that all the results of his life, so also is Christ infinitely more important than his teaching. – p. 123-124

It is important to remember the context of Kierkegaard’s philosophy: he is opposed to Hegelian philosophy which he believed left no room for the individual (existential) in philosophy, and he also opposed the Danish Lutheran Church for its formalism and deadness of Christianity in Denmark. Thus, Kierkegaard’s central preoccupation is the question of how one becomes a Christian.

Keeping this in mind, Kierkegaard speaks of Christ’s personhood as being both recognizable and unrecognizable. How is it that some recognized Christ when they saw him and some did not? Clearly, according to Kierkegaard, there is an existential imparting (by the Holy Spirit) to the individual to recognize Christ.

Kierkegaard writes,

The majority of people living in Christendom today no doubt live in the illusion that if they had been contemporary with Christ they would have recognized him immediately despite his unrecognizability. They utterly fail to see how they betray that they do not know themselves; it totally escapes them that this conviction they have, whereby they presumably think to glorify Christ, is blasphemy, contained in the nonsensical – undialectical climax of clerical roaning: to such a degree was Christ God that one could immediately and directly perceive it, instead of: he was true God, and therefore to such a degree God that we was unrecognizable – thus it was not flesh and blood but the opposite of flesh and blood that inspired Peter to recognize him. – p.128

What I find continually fascinating about Kierkegaard is his orthodoxy given the competing philosophical perspectives of his day. He affirms the traditional doctrines of the church and has a high view of Scripture’s authority, but I have yet to see his complete rest in both the person and the work of Christ (such as the atonement, resurrection, and ascension). In my view, this affirmation of both Christ’s person and work is necessary to give Kierkegaard the peace he is vehemently pursuing.

The Gospel For Copenhagen

View of Copenhagen atop the Rundetårn.

View of Copenhagen atop the Rundetårn.

Copenhagen, Denmark is a wonderful capital city. Located just 207 miles from Hamburg and 27 miles from Malmö, Copenhagen is situated with easy access to both the rest of Scandinavia (Sweden and Norway) and Southern Europe. Copenhagen is very easy to navigate by mass transit (trains and buses) and people are always willing to assist visitors with directions. As with any major western city, Copenhagen is a bit expensive, but that is a price many are willing to pay for all the things the city has to offer. I recently returned from a two week stay in Denmark, much of which was centered in Copenhagen and fell in love with the country and people. I found the people to be welcoming and hospitable, well educated, and quite willing to share their culture.

Copenhagen is an historic city. Founded in the 10th century as a fishing village, its current population exceeds 1.2 million. To put Copenhagen’s population dominance in perspective, the second, third, and fourth most populated cities in Denmark (Aarhus, Odense, and Aalborg) do not equal half of Copenhagen’s population combined. According to the most recent census (and some of the sources have slight variance), over seventy-seven percent of Copenhagen’s population is ethnically Danish, however there is a steadily growing presence of both western and non-western minorities. This growth in immigration has raised some concern in Denmark, so much so that it was a major talking point in recent elections.

Copenhagen is rich in academia. The city has just under one hundred thousand students enrolled in its universities with The University of Copenhagen as arguably the most prominent. Copenhagen is Denmark’s political, economic, and cultural center. There is also an abundance of museums, galleries, and theatric halls throughout the city.

One of Copenhagen's many canals.

One of Copenhagen’s many canals.

The state church in Denmark is Lutheran and has been that way since 1536. In fact, the Constitution of Denmark solidified their Lutheran standing in 1848. Thus, the church is financially supported by the state but church membership is voluntary. Although the Danish Lutheran Church enjoys state status, church membership has been in decline. Over the last thirty years, the percentage of church membership (in relation to population) has decreased from ninety-two percent to seventy-eight percent. What is more striking, however, is it is estimated that only two percent of church members attend weekly worship with any regularity. This means that the overwhelming majority of Danes affiliated with the Luther church do so out of tradition and not because of any real connection. Of course, this lead me to ask, why? Why has the church declined in a country that once experienced the Reformation? Here are five reasons, given to me by Danes themselves, as to why the church is in decline:

1. There is struggle in Danish culture to believe in what is unseen.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. – Hebrews 11:1

Men Tro er en Fortrøstning til det, som håbes, en Overbevisning om Ting, som ikke ses. – Hebræerne 11:1

This is not an uncommon challenge for people and is as much an issue in the United States as it is in Denmark. People have difficulty placing hope and trust in someone they cannot see. Perhaps even many Christians who experienced conversion in adulthood can resonate with this challenge. Even they can recall a time when having faith in the unseen seemed to be crazy, but the Spirit has ways of transforming people’s hearts and minds. Empiricism rules in Denmark and there is a tendency to view faith and science as polar opposites. Again, this is not an unusual perspective to have but it does reveal a misunderstanding of how faith and science relate.

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, – 1 Peter 1:8

ham, som I ikke have set og dog elske, ham, som I, skønt I nu ikke se, men tro, skulle fryde eder over med en uudsigelig og forherliget Glæde, – 1 Peter 1:8

2. Equating extremism with anything religious.

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. – John 13:35

Derpå skulle alle kende, at I ere mine Disciple, om I have indbyrdes Kærlighed. – Johannes 13:35

When people in Denmark see the effects and atrocities of religious extremism, a growing disdain and distrust for anything religious takes root. Denmark had a long history of military conflict with Sweden and witnessed the ravages of Nazi Germany, so naturally they want peace. If organized religion represents itself as anything other than peaceful, it will have no place in Danish culture. That is their perception and Christian missions will have to address it if there is any hope for the gospel. The promising thing is that Danish people are still willing to have conversations about this issue. Many people I spoke with are still open to discussions about faith and life. The door has not been sealed shut.

3. The Church is disconnected from and does not understand the culture.

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. – Acts 17:22-23

Men Paulus stod frem midt på Areopagus og sagde: “”I athemiensiske Mænd! jeg ser, at I i alle Måder ere omhyggelige for eders Gudsdyrkelse. Thi da jeg gik omkring og betragtede eders Helligdommen, fandt jeg også et Alter, på hvilket der var skrevet: “”For en ukendt Gud.”” Det, som I således dyrke uden at kende det, det forkynder jeg eder. – Apostelenes gerninger 17:22-23

Sometimes I think there is an overemphasis in Christian missions on highlighting cultural differences and an underemphasis on matters of the heart that transcend culture. I do not offer that as a sharp criticism, but only to say that it seems people are far more alike than they are different. People in Denmark die of cancer, worry about their children, have struggling marriages, and deal with various addictions – just like everyone else. They have fears and hopes and dreams like everyone. The pressures and trials of life are as evident in Denmark as anywhere. So the question becomes, how does the church shepherd? Does the culture sense that the church cares about their trials? Is the church ministering in word and deed?

4. The Church’s history of using guilt to draw people into church.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. – 2 Corinthians 8:9

I kende jo vor Herres Jesu Kristi Nåde, at han for eders Skyld blev fattig, da han var rig, for at I ved hans Fattigdom skulde blive rige. – 2 Korinterne 8:9

“Jesus is going to get you if you don’t come to church.” That is the recollection of a woman’s childhood in the church. She told me that priests would often strike fear in parishioners as a means of getting them to come to church. This woman, who by my estimation is in her sixties, still remembers the guilt. I could see it in her eyes as she told me the story. The guilt still hurts.

This type of guilt not only does not work – it is not biblical. All one needs to do is read the apostle Paul to see how the mercy and grace of God through Christ is the only means for drawing hearts to the gospel. The call to worship is appropriate because Christ made himself of no account. He gave everything of himself, through love, so that his people would enjoy communion with God. He took sin upon himself and was stricken, smitten and afflicted, yet by his wound we are healed. This is why the church is so beautiful – because Christ has made her such. So, it is not about Christ “getting” you, but giving his life for you. Perhaps if this had been the priests message she would be in the church today.

5. Life is so busy that there is no energy or motivation to give Sunday morning to worship.

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. – John 4:23

Men den Time kommer, ja, den er nu, da de sande Tilbedere skulle tilbede Faderen i Ånd og Sandhed; thi det er sådanne Tilbedere, Faderen vil have. – Johannes 4:23

This is an interest and revealing statement on many levels, and probably far too much to address in this post. I am certain that there all kinds of nuances at play and plenty of blame to be shared, but again, the answer to this trend is the gospel in Christ alone.

Street performer in the Strøget.

Street performer in the Strøget.

In spite of these challenges, Denmark is not out of God’s reach. The people are extremely thoughtful and caring. They enjoy good, sincere conversation and are willing to listen to other perspectives. I found the people to be very insightful, and I think most I spoke with were sensitive to the importance of the gospel in their culture. I departed Denmark with terrific fondness and a sincere longing to return.

Kierkegaard’s Practice in Christianity: The Exposition

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The offense under discussion here is one of which anyone, for that matter, can be the subject if he, the single individual, seems to be unwilling to subject or subordinate himself to the established order. p.85

Søren Kierkegaard is not a relativist. Nowhere in Practice in Christianity does he refute the existence of absolute truth. In fact, up to this point, Kierkegaard has been adamant that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, and that there is no way to the Father except through him. He does not propose the idea that truth can be whatever one makes it to be. Kierkegaard is decidedly Christian and it is from this view that he speaks.

Kierkegaard is also not an irrationalist. He is sometimes lumped together with people like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, as one who is on a never-ending quest to make sense out of an apparently incoherent world. Kierkegaard, however, has enough ontological, epistemological, and ethical understanding to have at least some distinctive separation from his cohorts. He writes, “It is self-evident that Christ is always the God-man.” p. 86 So, we must not confuse Kierkegaard’s moments of lament with chronic irrationalism. He is actually a very clear and rational thinker.

What appears to be disconcerting to Kierkegarrd, according to the opening quote, is that the established order (the Danish state Lutheran church) is inauthentic in its passion for Christ. It seems that people are part of the state church because of tradition and not because of hearts transformed by the gospel. He attempts to provide biblical support with the following text:

Matthew 15:1-12 (English Standard Version)

15 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 5 But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” 6 he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

8 “‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

10 And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?”

By appealing to this text, Kierkegaard seeks to advocate for a gospel Christianity; one that is heart-transforming. A passion-less Christianity simply does not work for Kierkegaard. It reminds me of the adage that we were not saved by our works, but we were certainly saved for works. This, I think, is what Kierkegaard is endorsing. He further writes,

Every human being is to live in fear and trembling, and likewise no established order is to be exempted from fear and trembling. Fear and trembling signify that we are in the process of becoming; and every single individual, likewise the generation, is and should be aware of being in the process of becoming. And fear and trembling signify that there is a God – something every human being and every established order ought not to forget for a moment. p.88

I translate this excerpt to be Kierkegaard’s admonishing the church for its apparent arrogance, and calling it to humility by seeing God as the only source of authority. Of course, this translates today as well. The spiritual emptiness of the Danish Lutheran church in the nineteenth century, as Kierkegaard saw it, continues to be an issue in the twenty-first century, and not necessarily only in Denmark. I think Kierkegaard’s caution is an important one for all churches, throughout the world, that proclaim the name of Christ.

Kierkegaard’s Practice in Christianity: The Moral

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“And what does all this mean?” It means that each individual in quiet inwardness before God is to humble himself under what it means in the strictest sense to be a Christian, is to confess honestly before God where he is so that he still might worthily accept the grace that is offered to every imperfect person – that is, to everyone. p.67

At the conclusion of The Halt is a short synopsis entitled, The Moral. It is here, and with the above cited first sentence, that one can clearly see Kierkegaard’s existentialism.

Kierkegaard’s focus is entirely on the personal (existential) perspective of knowledge. Whereas the normative focuses on the standards (criterion) of knowledge and the situational focuses on the object of knowledge (what it is we are trying to know), the existential focuses on the person (the knower). For Kierkegaard, the concern is not with the criterion for truth or the object of truth, but with the person seeking truth. This is very different from Hegelian philosophy which is normative driven.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was passionate about creating dialectical systems that encompass all of knowledge. He wanted to develop tidy systems, based on generalities, that eventually lead to concreteness. Kierkegaard, however, was opposed to such thought. The knowledge of the individual, according to Kierkegaard, cannot be captured by scientific (objective) study. Merely presenting facts will not translate into knowledge unless the person has the capacity to make sense of those facts.

So, for Kierkegaard, these kinds of questions would be more commonly asked: How does one become a Christian within the realm of Christendom? What does authentic Christianity look like? What is true faith in contrast to mere allegiance to Christianity? How is a person related to God? What is the relationship between faith and passion. This is why Practice in Christianity is written with an emphasis in individualism.

Kierkegaard never denies objective truth in his writing. He is not a relativist or irrationalist. He writes from the perspective of a Christian who is deeply concerned about the condition of the state church (Danish Lutheran) because he does not see a genuine connection with Christ. It is this concern that makes Practice in Christianity a very clear read (which was not my impression when I started the work).

In the above quote, we see Kierkegaard’s interest in a Christianity that is a true relationship with Christ and not merely a church association based on appeal to tradition. Notice how he appeals to people to consider what it means to be a Christian. He calls on people to confess before God so that grace may be received. Kierkegaard, in the midst of his angst with the ecclesiastical establishment, strikes a sincere evangelistic tone.

Kierkegaard’s Practice in Christianity: The Halt

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Kierkegaard’s chapter, The Halt, begins with a curious way of defining Christ’s existence. He distinguishes between Christ’s abasement and glory. The way I interpret Kierkegaard’s thought here is what I would refer to as Christ’s states of humiliation and exaltation. Perhaps this is merely a semantic difference from Kierkegaard, but he draws a very sharp line between these two states. Though I concur with Kierkegaard with respect to this distinction, I am not as rigid in keeping them separated from each other. I find that Christ’s humiliation and exaltation are keenly reflective of each other. For example, even in his state of abasement Christ showed evidence of his transfigured glory (Matthew 17; Mark9; Luke 9) and in his glory he bears the marks of his abasement (Luke 24:40). The wounds in his hands testify to the reality of his personhood and chastisement for our healing (Isaiah 53:5).

Kierkegaard takes a very strong position that when Christ issues the call to come to him all who are weary and heavy-laden, he does so not in his glorified state but in his state of abasement. While I agree that Christ uttered those words during his humiliation, I am not as willing to maintain that Christ’s glory is irrelevant (or perhaps better stated nonexistent) to the invitation. For example, I find it difficult to read John 14 and not see the implications of Christ’s glory as he maintains his union with the Father.

He does not want to be judged humanly by the results of his life, that is, he is and wants to be the sign of offense and the object of faith; to judge him according to the results of his life is blasphemy. As God, his life, that he lived and has lived, is infinitely more decisive than all the results of it in history. p. 23-24

The above quote is a bit nebulous to me for a few reasons. First, I am not precisely certain how Kierkegaard defines “judged” and I do not believe I have that authority toward Christ (the way I define that term to mean). In this way, I agree that it is blasphemous to judge Christ. Second, he seems to dichotomize Christ’s life from the rest of history. My concern here is if Christ did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, then how can we not look to his earthly life as both the satisfaction of divine wrath and the gauge by which we understand the rest of history?

The inviter. Who is the inviter? Jesus Christ. Which Jesus Christ, the Jesus Christ who sits in glory at the Father’s right hand? No. From glory he has not spoken a word. So, then, it is Jesus Christ in his abasement, in the situation of abasement, who has spoken these words. p. 24

Is he, then, not in glory now? Yes, of course, this the Christian believes. But it was in the condition of abasement that he spoke those words; he did not speak them from glory. Nothing can be known about his coming again in glory; that can only be believed in the strictest sense. But one cannot become a believer except by coming to him in his state of abasement, to him, the sign of offense and the object of faith. p. 24

I appreciate Kierkegaard’s passion for Christ’s abasement, but I think the lines he draws are extremely rigid. Most systematic theologians I have read and studied certainly distinguish between the two states of Christ, but they do not maintain that those states are mutually exclusive.

In summary, I remain favorable to Kierkegaard though I sense this unresolved angst in his writing.

Kierkegaard’s Practice in Christianity: The Invitation

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I will be traveling to Denmark this summer and in preparation for the trip I like to learn about the people, culture, and arts. I also like to read prominent theological, philosophical, and literary figures that are native to Denmark. Of particular interest to me is the ecclesiastical history of the country, especially whether there was ever a Reformed presence. So, in the midst of desiring to educate myself I have chosen to read Søren Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard did a great deal of writing in his forty-two years of life, publishing many books and essays, some of which were published under pseudonyms. As with any writer, Kierkegaard has advocates and critics but it seems that he has an enduring legacy. He is often quoted or cited, even by Reformed pastors and theologians. The book I chose to read is entitled, Practice in Christianity (the final published work under the pseudonym, “Anti-Climacus,” though he employed many pseudonyms). I chose this book for no other reason than I found the title intriguing. I read a few short reviews and thought this would be a good start. As a Kierkegaard novice, I sought direction from scholars as to how to read him. Scholars, however, are very much divided on this. For example, one review I read claims Kierkegaard shows ambivalence toward Christianity. Perhaps that is an unfair critique as I have not found that to be the case at all, at least not in Practice in Christianity.

This post, the first in a series, will include page numbers in the citation and progress chapter by chapter. The book I am using, in case you would like to follow along,

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1991   Practice in Christianity. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

The Invitation

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. – Matthew 11:28 (ESV)

The opening chapter centers on Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28. Kierkegaard begins by meticulously expounding, word by word, what he thinks this verse to mean. He is amazed by the love of the one who is willing to help all those who know they cannot help themselves. He is clearly mesmerized by Christ’s sacrifice, love and grace. Indeed, these are wonderful things to be in awe and I find it excellent that the book begins with this quote.

To offer a brief context to Matthew’s Gospel and the eleventh chapter, the book contains many passages that speak of Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. This has lead scholars to maintain that the gospel is written to both Jews and Gentiles, likely from Antioch in Syria. I have seen this gospel divided into various outlines, but one that I am most familiar with provides the following division: ethics, discipleship and mission, kingdom parables, the church, and eschatology. The eleventh chapter, which Kierkegaard uses as the foundation of his book, has to do with the nature of the kingdom of God.

Related to the nature of the kingdom is Jesus’ authority. Jesus has the authority to invite people to himself, but what is uncanny is the language used to do this. Jesus, as the incarnate wisdom of God, is not calling the strong but the weary and burdened. That distinction between the strong and the weak is precisely Kierkegaard’s thesis for his work.

Let’s consider the following excerpts for further thought:

[H]e who sacrificed himself, sacrifices himself here also, he is himself the one who seeks those who have need of help, he is himself the one who goes around and, calling, almost pleading, says: Come here. He, the only one who is able to help with the one thing needful, who is able to rescue from the only, in the truest sense, life-threatening illness, he does not wait for anyone to come to him; he comes on his own initiative, uncalled – for he is indeed the one who calls to them; he offers help – and such help! – p.12

I am very favorable to what Kierkegaard is expressing here, namely, Christ’s ever-pursuing love. Christ is the only one who can save from the truest life-threatening illness, thus he conquers sin and death (1 Corinthians 15:55-57). Christ does not wait to be invited into one’s life in order for his grace to be dispensed; he enters at his own initiative.

However willing a person is, he still does not wish to help everyone – he will not abandon himself in that way. But he, the only one who in truth can help and in truth can help all, consequently the only one who in truth can invite all, he makes no condition whatsoever. – p.12-13

There are at least two takeaways, as I see it, from what Kierkegaard here proposes. First, even the most chivalrous person has certain boundaries. As much as one may be willing to help those in desperate need, even the most noble of humanitarian efforts fall short of the ultimate cost – one willingly and intentionally dying for others. Granted, some people may give of themselves knowing that the possibility of death is great, but they do not give with the intentionality that nothing less than dying will suffice. Jesus, however, was set apart precisely to die. That was his mission and nothing less than that was an option.

Second, not only is Jesus the only one who with complete abandon to his Father’s will went forth to die, he is also the only one who can provide the ultimate redemption from the ultimate judgment. That redemption in Christ does not require any additive. It is complete and perfect on its own.

The apostle Paul captures this so well in Romans:

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. – Romans 5:6-11 (ESV)

So, we see here the depth of Christ’s sacrifice to secure our reconciliation. Though Kierkegaard does not explicitly cite Romans 5:6-11 at this point, I can see how this text likely influenced him greatly.

Do not despair over every relapse, which the God of patience has the patience to forgive and under which a sinner certainly should have the patience to humble himself. – p.19

Kierkegaard focuses on patience as he closes his first chapter. His reference to “the God of patience” has biblical warrant.

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. – 2 Peter 3:9 (ESV)

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him – 2 Peter 3:15 (ESV)

What is more interesting, however, is Kierkegaard appears to be saying that God, because he is patient, forgives every relapse. Is he suggesting that God forgives after every sin at the moment it happens? Or perhaps he is saying that God forgives every habitual (besetting) sin. Or is it that Jesus secures forgiveness once and for all? It seems to me that the statement is a bit vague to understand precisely what Kierkegaard is saying.

In summary of this first chapter, I find Kierkegaard to be quite pastoral in his approach. Overall, I find his grasp of theology to be good. Though I did find a few areas where he could have been more precise, he fundamental goal of commending Christ was achieved.

Has Revelation Ceased?

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Have you ever become embroiled in an argument with someone just to learn that you have been speaking right past each other? Or have you ever attempted to have a conversation with someone who was so particular about definitions that it seemed more time was being spent on what you were meaning to say than the issue at hand? Moments such as these can be quite exhausting, even frustrating.

One of my former professors, the late Dr. Roger Nicole, wrote a brilliant little essay entitled, Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us. The essay’s title cannot be more appropriate. How do we deal with people who differ from us? Though the essay is postulated from a theological perspective, certainly this question affects every aspect of human life. Nicole writes,

I have noticed that my wife sometimes says things like, “You never empty the wastebasket.” Now as a matter of fact, on January 12, 1994, I did empty the wastebasket. Therefore, the word never is inappropriate! This tends to weaken the force of my wife’s reproach. Well, I’ve learned that I don’t get anywhere by pressing this point. This kind of response does not provide dividends of joy and peace in my home. I’ve learned, therefore, to interpret that when my wife says “never” she often means “rarely” or “not as often as should be.” When she says “always,” she means “frequently” or “more often than should be.”

Instead of quibbling as to the words never and always, I would do well to pay attention to what she finds objectionable. And indeed, I should be emptying the wastebasket. Feminist or not feminist, a husband and father should empty the wastebasket; and therefore, if I fail to do this, even only once, there is a good reason to complain. Nothing is gained by quibbling about how often this happens. I ought to recognize this and be more diligent with it rather than to quote the dictionary.

Similarly, in dealing with those who differ, we ought not to split hairs about language just in order to pounce on our opponent because he or she has not used accurate wording. It is more effective to seek to apprehend what is meant and then to relate ourselves to the person’s meaning. If we don’t do that, of course, there is no encounter because this person speaks at one level and we are taking the language at another level. The two do not meet and the result is bound to be frustrating. If we really want to meet, we might as well try to figure out the meaning rather than to quibble on wording.

One topic Christians tend to quibble on is the question of whether God’s revelation has ceased. In other words, will God add new revelation to what we already have? Depending on your church background your answer can be quite quick. If you are Pentecostal the answer is yes; if you are Reformed the answer is no. End of discussion! Well, the question is not as obvious as some may suppose and we would do well to stop and consider what is being asked before offering a response. The answer to this question, which can be yes or no, is based entirely on what aspect of God’s revelation we are addressing.

The Nature of Revelation

When touring Vatican City I had the opportunity to visit the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo painted the chapel from 1508-1512. As I looked at all the paintings there was much I could learn about the artist. For example, I could see he was extremely gifted, that he paid meticulous attention to detail, and that he had a tremendous imagination. In fact, my assessment of Michelangelo, based entirely upon viewing his work, is likely shared by many people who have visited the chapel.

Vatican Sistine Chapel

So, in some respects, the paintings tell me a lot about Michelangelo, but there is much that the paintings do not tell. For example, where was he born? Where did he go to school? What was his family life like? What were his greatest joys and sorrows? The paintings in the Sistine Chapel are silent concerning these things. I cannot look at his work and learn about his family. For this, I need a written testimony which details Michelangelo’s life.

God reveals himself in two ways: through creation (general revelation) and through scripture (special revelation). Let us take these two types of revelation in order.

General Revelation

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. – Psalm 19:1

This is how God reveals himself through creation and events. All of creation: the mountains; the oceans; the stars in the sky reveal God’s design. We can look at creation and see God’s handiwork. Every time the sun rises and sets we fathom God’s authority, control, and presence. In this respect, the Lord reveals his glory afresh every day.

Additionally, God has created all things, both seen and unseen. Our knowledge of God is not by any means exhaustive, nor will we ever see all that the Lord has made.

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. – Romans 1:18-20

The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 1:18-20 that all humanity, as part of God’s creation, know that there is separation from God due to sin (suppression of the truth). So in this manner, general revelation not only reveals the glory of God but testifies to our sinfulness. Thus, all humanity have sufficient knowledge of God to leave us without excuse.

So, general revelation is clear enough to show the Lord as Creator. It is also sufficient to show our sinfulness. However, it is not sufficient to bring us salvation in the person and work of Christ. For that, we need special revelation.

Special Revelation

As much as general revelation is truly God revealing himself, it is not part of the canon. We need to know God’s preceptive (written) will in order to know salvation in Christ. Remember how we cannot know the details of Michelangelo’s life merely by looking at his paintings? Through scripture, we learn the details of God’s holiness that creation alone cannot provide.

What makes special revelation so special is it reveals salvation through Christ. This revelation is sometimes called redemptive covenant revelation. Here is a critical point: special revelation applies not only to scripture but also to Christ (the word in the flesh, John 1). Here is precisely why special revelation has ceased – there is no further covenant that we are awaiting that can move us beyond what Christ has established.

To say that special revelation has not ceased is to assert an inadequacy of sorts in Christ’s obedience of the law, his atoning death, his triumphal resurrection, and ascension to the Father’s right hand. Consider the following texts:

1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. – Hebrews 1:1-3

The reason why special revelation has ceased is because Jesus has spoken with finality and authority. In this way, Jesus fulfills the role of prophet.

20 Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. – Hebrews 13:20-21

Not only has Jesus spoken with authority, his covenant is by the blood of the eternal covenant. In other words, there is no greater covenant. There is nothing that can surpass the blood of Christ shed for sins (Matt. 26:28; Heb. 9:22; 1 John 1:7). In fact, scripture teaches that there is no other name by which men may be saved (Acts 4:12).

So if the name of Jesus is the only name by which one is saved, and if Christ has spoken with finality and authority, and if the eternal covenant is in his blood, then special revelation has ceased. To suggest otherwise would be to imply something greater to come.

Covenantal Apologetics: Defending The Faith and Beyond

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I read an essay a long time ago by Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) titled, Why I Believe in God.  It was my introduction to the discipline of apologetics, which is the study of the defense of the Christian faith. What is remarkable about this essay is that it is, to my knowledge, the only of Van Til’s works that is directed specifically toward unbelievers. He writes with a far more conversational than academic style, setting up a conversation as it were, even inserting some creativity and wit within his dialogue,

So, as we have our tea, I propose not only to operate on your heart so as to change your will, but also on your eyes so as to change your outlook. But wait a minute. No, I do not propose to operate at all. I myself cannot do anything of the sort. I am just mildly suggesting that you are perhaps dead, and perhaps blind, leaving you to think the matter over for yourself. If an operation is to be performed it must be performed by God Himself.

I have read a lot of Van Til, and this is a rather unique style for him. In some respects, the essay raises more questions than it answers (which is precisely what it should do given the intended audience), but it is a very helpful introduction to how to articulate and defend the Christian faith.

But even more than defending the Christian faith, Van Til’s apologetic is also beneficial in developing a theology of ministry. There is a practicality to his apologetics as characterized by his two-circle worldview. Some of my professors have said that he would draw two circles on the blackboard. One large circle representing God was placed above a smaller circle representing creation. The point of this visual was to show that God is the Creator and as such he has complete authority over creation, including human knowledge. Therefore, our task is to bring our knowledge in accord with Scripture (God’s knowledge in his revealed Word). This means we are to presuppose God in all of our thoughts: relational, vocational, social, educational – indeed, to every human thought and activity.

Taking presuppositional apologetics a step further, if Van Til’s apologetic is applied to all areas of life, then it stands to reason that the church should be vested in an apologetic that will drive ministry in a similar manner. After all, ministry is the application of the gospel to life. Primary guidance should come from Scripture as the rule of faith and life. Likewise, creeds and confessions can (and should) play a critical role in steering the church to scriptural faithfulness. Thus, the way we defend and articulate Christianity should be the same way we hold fast to the covenantal promises, even when discussing moral issues. Remember, Van Til’s apologetic is one for all areas of life. How the church stands on moral issues will ultimately reflect upon how the church presupposes God. Christianity, therefore, is more than a series of propositional truths, it is the truth of the gospel in Christ that transforms both heart and mind.

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K. Scott Oliphint’s book, Covenantal Apologetics, is very helpful in explaining how to defend the Christian faith. Oliphint, himself greatly influenced by Van Til, is thoughtful at beginning with the Triune God as the foundation of apologetics. He provides ten tenets that serve as the core of apologetic application. As Oliphint states, each one of these tenets are a book unto themselves and hardly exhaustive, yet they are a good place to begin establishing roots to defending the faith. The tenets are as follows:

1. The faith that we are defending must begin with, and necessarily include, the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – who, as God, condescends to create and redeem.

2. God’s covenantal revelation is authoritative by virtue of what it is, and any covenantal, Christian apologetic will necessarily stand on and utilize that authority in order to defend Christianity.

3. It is the truth of God’s revelation, together with the work of the Holy Spirit, that brings about a covenantal change from one who is in Adam to one who is in Christ.

4. Man (male and female) as image of God is in the covenant with the triune God for eternity.

5. All people know the true God, and that knowledge entails covenantal obligations.

6. Those who are and remain in Adam suppress the truth that they know. Those who are in Christ see that truth for what it is.

7. There is an absolute, covenantal antithesis between Christian theism and any other, opposing position. Thus, Christianity is true and anything opposing it is false.

8. Suppression of the truth, like the depravity of sin, is total but not absolute. Thus, every unbelieving position will necessarily have within it ideas, concepts, notions, and the like that it has taken and wrenched from their true, Christian context.

9. The true, covenantal knowledge of God in man, together with God’s universal mercy, allows for persuasion in apologetics.

10. Every fact and experience is what it is by virtue of the covenantal, all-controlling plan and purpose of God.

These tenets require some study (at least for me) in order for them to anchor how I defend and articulate the gospel. But these tenets also inform my thinking concerning life and drawing my thoughts more closely to God’s thoughts as revealed in his Word. Of course, that is an ongoing process for me and I am often corrected of my own misconceptions.

Here are a couple of excellent resources on apologetics:

Pratt, Richard L., Jr. Every Thought Captive: A Study Manual for the Defense of Christian Truth. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979.

Frame, John M. Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1994.

 

The Importance of College Ministry

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I was once a college student. I guess you could say that I took my leisure earning an undergraduate degree (six years). I attended five different schools, took time off to work, and was very uncertain about what I wanted to do in life. Though much of my time as a college student is becoming a distant memory, there is one episode that continues to impress upon my life even today – college ministry.

I had just transferred to the University of Florida and my roommate invited me to a dinner to meet other students. Though the spaghetti dinner filled the void in my stomach, what was really lasting was the exposure to the gospel that began to settle my very unsettled heart. I made lots of friendships with great people, but even better was knowing I was being prayed with and for during these very formative years. I attended worship, played intramural sports, and went to as many functions as I could. Over time, these friends began to feel more like family and that was what I was needing so desperately.

There is a lot of documented research that points to the importance of college ministry. The Barna Group, LifeWay,  and Christianity Today are among many organizations that have studied trends concerning the role of the church in the lives of college students. I am not going to provide any thoughts on the statistics except to say that college students need college ministry and I am living proof of the blessings of such work.

My denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, has a ministry for college students called Reformed University Fellowship. Here is how RUF articulates their mission:

MISSION: HOW WILL GOD FIX THE WORLD?
Whether it’s getting a raise at work, the birth of a child, or crossing something off your bucket list, good news demands to be told. What God has done and is doing in the world finds its clearest expression in the society of God’s people called the church. RUF exists to announce and demonstrate to the world the words and work of Jesus. In addition, we strive to provide the basis for the transformation of the world and the “healing of the nations.”

REFORMED
Simply put, “Reformed,” describes the biblical convictions of historic Christianity. The movement of the church which sought to renew these convictions afresh ministered the Christian gospel under the banners of “Faith Alone,” “Grace Alone,” “Scripture Alone,” and “To God Alone Be The Glory.” In calling ourselves “Reformed” we claim the same banners for our work.

UNIVERSITY
More than just a ministry on the university campus, RUF seeks to be a ministry for the university. We strive to serve in this unique stage of a student’s life in the world they live in, exploring together how the Lordship of Christ informs every area of life.

FELLOWSHIP
All human problems originate from our alienation from God, and those problems show up vividly in broken relationships with one another. God’s answer to human alienation is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and His answer to disintegrated relationships is the church of Jesus. RUF is the arm of this restorative people reaching out to the college campus.

My personal conviction is that Reformed University Fellowship is the most important ministry in our denomination. I know I should not use superlatives when speaking about ministry because the harvest is great in all areas. My intention is not to downplay other ministries such as overseas missions, church planting, or disaster relief. So what makes RUF so critical? Here are four brief areas of consideration for now:

1. Competing Worldviews. College is a challenging environment. Administration and faculty operate out of certain world and life convictions that they seek to impress upon their students. That is not a criticism, that is reality. College students, therefore, must be equipped to understand various worldviews, sift through what is right and wrong, and maintain focus on how a gospel world and life view fits into it all.

2. Marriage and Parenting. Many college students will have a family of their own. Some may be married and parenting children before they realize. It is critical for young adults to be equipped with the transforming power of the gospel so they may assume the calling of spouse and parent with Godly convictions.

3. The Workplace. I remember my first job out of college. I was excited and energized to get started on my new career. I felt ready to meet any challenge that came my way. As the newness of the job began to wane I started wondering if I was really making a difference. Was my job satisfying? Should I have changed my major? Do I want to do this long term? College ministry prepares students for these kinds of questions that will possibly be raised.

4. The Church. College ministry receives youth group kids (who, let’s be honest, tend to be narcissistic) and reintroduces them to the church as men and women with the capacity for leadership, ministry passion, and a longing to serve. The church should receive these people with great anticipation of how the Lord will use them for his glory.